Science - May 31, 2007

Cracks in Wageningen’s multiculti image

As an international student, easy-going multicultural student town Wageningen is not a bad place to be. With almost a hundred nationalities, it seems to be a last bastion of Dutch tolerance. But a closer look reveals that, even in Wageningen, integration leaves a lot to be desired.

Mixing within the university is not a problem, outside is another story.
Wageningen UR advertises itself worldwide as having an international character. Almost a third of the master’s students and over half the PhD researchers come from abroad. In addition, many of the Dutch students are motivated by the search for a fairer world, and some of them are preparing for a career in a developing country. Plenty of opportunities for contact between foreign and Dutch students to blossom, you might think.

The reality is different. That international and Dutch students do not integrate well is an increasingly heard complaint. Despite international parties, joint excursions to Amsterdam and compulsory group assignments, the students do little together outside of classes and lectures. ‘Integration within the university is fine, but outside it’s far more difficult,’ says Monika Mikulecka from the Czech Republic. She is doing a master’s in Marketing and Consumer Behaviour. ‘I wish I could have more contact with some of my Dutch fellow students, but they hardly dare to say hi on the street.’

International students who want more than just a well-functioning study group can’t just sit back and wait for things to happen, for the Dutch are passive on this front. ‘There are no international students in my circle of friends,’ says Reinout van der Thiel, who is doing a master’s in Food Quality Management. ‘I live in a student house with Dutch students and in lectures I usually sit next to people I already know. I’m not really going to go: hi, I’m Dutch and I’m looking for international friends. If someone crosses my path, that’s ok, I’d really like that. But I don’t feel the need to make any extra effort.’

Aloof
What’s more, foreigners who do take the first step must first be prepared to get past a lot of Dutch stiffness. Many people from abroad do not consider a handshake a very warm welcome. ‘The first time I met my Nigerian neighbour, he threw his arms around my neck,’ recalls Sabine Super, in her second year of Communication Sciences. ‘To me that was very personal. It seems normal to him, but it’s a bit too much for me.’

The Dutch aloofness is often given as the reason why integration does not always go smoothly between international and Dutch students. ‘Latinos and Spanish people are much warmer. They hug and kiss more easily. The Dutch keep their distance,’ says Monika. ‘You almost need to be a bit rude here, throw yourself into groups and invite yourself to dinner,’ says Elisabeth Smith who is from Norway and studying International Development.

But even here you have to be careful. ‘Once I just turned up at a friend’s without warning. The first thing he asked was if we had an appointment,’ says PhD student Vasilis Dakos from Greece. International students have to learn a long list of rules of behaviour before they can consider themselves to have Dutch friends. And to make matters worse, they are also faced with a different weekly rhythm. Dutch students’ traditional night for going out is Thursday evening, whereas students from other countries relax at the weekend. By the time Friday evening comes around, there has been a mass exodus of Dutch students all heading for their family home, leaving the international students to enjoy their own parties.

Chinese
And what’s the result? The international students all have a good time together. The Dutch are the only ones missing the multicultural boot, along with the Chinese. ‘They tend to stick together,’ says Coby Stals, a third-year biology student. Most Chinese students are aware of their image of inscrutability. It’s true, we do prefer eating together or playing games instead of going to a bar,’ confirms Chinese student Yang Hay Yang. ‘We can communicate more easily with each other.’

But the Chinese are not the only ones who stick together. ‘I like to hang out with people from Africa. The common culture just makes me feel more comfortable,’ says MAKS student Limph Taoana from South Africa. It’s too easy just to point at the Dutch and Chinese as the cause of the lack of integration, Vasilis believes. In the Greek’s opinion, Wageningen really isn’t that bad. ‘It’s easier to start a conversation with Dutch students here than it is in Amsterdam.’

Yes, Vasilis admits, Dutch students are often away at the weekends. But it would be laziness to say that this is the reason for the lack of integration, he believes. Go out on Thursday then, like they do.’ And think about where you live. The concentration of foreigners in student flats such as the Bornsesteeg does not promote contact with locals. ‘I decided I didn’t only want to hang out with Greeks and live in the ‘student bubble’ and disappear again after two or three years. I moved to the centre of town to be more part of Dutch life.’

Helpful
The Dutch might be a bit stiff, but they are always ready to offer a helping hand. ‘I think that’s part of their culture, showing their hospitality,’ says Vasilis. Certainly, Dutch students who have been abroad themselves are quicker to seek contact with foreign students. ‘I want to get to know other cultures and I feel partly responsible for international students integrating here,’ says Elke Klaassen a Dutch student doing Communication Sciences. ‘I’ve travelled a lot myself and I know how nice it is when someone explains how the supermarket works or where you can buy a second-hand bike.’

And she’s not the only one. Reinout, the one who really didn’t want to make the effort, has started to think differently since he returned from his stage in Australia. ‘Before it was ‘them’ foreigners and ‘us’ Dutch. Now I’ve been abroad myself and I know what it’s like to be a foreigner. I’m more open to contact.’

Some form of integration seems feasible. ‘As an international student though you have to work hard for it,’ says Elisabeth. The question, however, is whether they think it’s necessary. There are not many international students who are going to lose sleep over it if it doesn’t work out. The complaint about lack of integration is heard now and then, but is also quickly forgotten. For Wageningen really is the multiculti paradise that the university describes in its recruitment drives. International students are having a fine time in their international houses and meeting places, without the Dutch.

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